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Friday, 25 February, 2000, 04:14 GMT
GM firms fund friendly scientists
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GM protest at Downing Street: CropGen wants "realism and balance"
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

UK biotechnology companies are providing nearly 500,000 to a scientific panel "to help achieve a more balanced debate about genetically-modified (GM) crops".

The funding, to cover the group's first year, comes from a consortium which includes Aventis CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto and Novartis Seeds.

But the sponsors have signed an undertaking that they will not veto any of the scientific positions taken by the panel.

Its members include specialists in agriculture, plant science, microbiology and ecology, and also in consumer affairs.

None works for any of the sponsoring companies, and each is paid "an honorarium in line with rates recommended by professional bodies". They say they will "make the case for crop biotechnology, not the biotechnology industry".

The panel is chaired by Vivian Moses, visiting professor of biotechnology at King's College, London.

Industry initiative

Three of its seven other members work for the Institute of Arable Crops Research, which is sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), one of seven such councils in the UK.

Penny Hawley, of the public relations agency handling the CropGen account, told BBC News Online: "The initiative came from the biotech companies. They approached the panel members.

"They're providing 460,000 over 12 months, which will pay for a consumer information line, a website, an office and an administrator.

"The panel will be reactive to begin with, but as it finds its feet it will be promoting research on crop biotechnology - provided only that it's been both published and peer-reviewed."

vivian moses
Professor Vivian Moses chairs CropGen
CropGen says it will be "able to offer a perspective on key issues in the GM crop debate such as human health, environmental impact and how we assess the benefits versus the risks".

Professor Moses says: "CropGen's challenge is to explain the current and future benefits of GM crops and to set any possible risks they might present in context.

"Its mission is to provide a voice for crop biotechnology - a voice that has all too often been missing from the public debates in the UK to date."

CropGen is not neutral. It does not hide its intention to argue the GM case, which it says it will do "by helping to achieve a greater measure of realism and better balance".

Benefits 'neglected'

It says its members "recognise that crop biotechnology offers many potential benefits - benefits which have been largely absent from the public debates".

It adds: "The barrage of criticism levelled at GM crops could well deny us many very real benefits - to the environment in terms of reduced use of chemicals, to the consumer in the form of more nutritious foods, and to the developing world through a more secure supply of food.

"More open debate about science and technology is long overdue, but if crop biotechnology is sacrificed along the way, it could be one of the great missed opportunities of the age."

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26 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
'GM crop can help environment'
21 Oct 99 |  Sci/Tech
GM crops have 'significant snags'
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